Monday, 30 July 2007

Criticising Charities

I had a letter from Christian Aid, more or less implying that I shouldn't criticise them because they were a charity and so was the WLT. I.e. it was bad form for charities to criticise one another. Personally I cannot see why I should not criticise another charity, any more than I shouldn't criticise any other business. I have a duty to uphold the values and mission of the WLT, and if another charity is damaging those values, then I am duty bound to criticise.

A few weeks ago Third Sector magazine reported that Bob Geldof 'recently slammed Al Gore's Live Earth event as "just an enormous pop concert without any real goal".' I think Al Gore should have retaliated that the Make Poverty History events were "just another pop concert without any realistic goals".

It is time that the charity world sectorised itself more. There are huge differences in the sector, every bit as great as in the business world. Service delivering charities, such as hospitals and schools have almost nothing in common with a charity such as the World Land Trust. Similarly religion-based charities have very little in common with performing arts charities. Comparing these together is like comparing theatres with banks, or art galleries with refuse collection services. In fact many of the religion-based charities are carrying out activities which are in direct opposition to environmental charities. And some animal welfare charities are undertaking activities which have negative environmental impacts. And so on and so forth. Debate is healthy, and I believe it is only right and proper for organisations like Christian Aid to be criticised for not undertaking Environmental Impact Assessments of their projects in Africa.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Jared Diamond: Collapse

It has taken me a while to getting round to reading Jared Diamond's Collapse. A truly depressing book, which should be compulsory reading for all politicians, and in particular to all aid agencies dealing with poverty in developing countries; and very well written. While I may not agree with some of the detail, or all his interpretations, overwhelmingly, Diamond makes the case for putting human populations and over-exploitation of resources, right at the top of the international agenda.

I was intrigued by the omission of two areas of collapse. The first was the collapse of St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides in the 1930s. It was a recent, exceptionally well-documented population collapse, which probably gives insight into the collapse of Greenland's European population 600 years earlier. And the second omission was the Levant, or Middle East as it has become to be known. (As an aside, the Middle East has moved westwards in time, to replace the Near East, which seems to have fallen into the Mediterranean Sea).

The present conflicts in Lebanon and Palestine, and adjacent countries are examples of societies in collapse, every bit as much as any of the others cited by Diamond. Slender natural resources, with rural populations inevitably lead to conflict. As Diamond points out, the only societies that can exist at high densities, with few resources, have to become highly industrialised, and high tech, in order to keep out of poverty. Before the immigration of the Jewish diaspora into Palestine, the area was barely able to support the existing populations, but the introduction of thousands of ex-patriates, together with the introduction of externally generated wealth has led to growing tensions, partly because a widening wealth gap.

Conventionally these are identified as religious tensions, but just as Diamond points out in Rwanda, where ethnic cleansing was claimed to be the motive for the violence, the reality was far more Malthusian than at first appears. The wealthy, heavily subsidised jewish state is surrounded by poverty stricken populations with virtually no natural resource, or other means of generating wealth. The inevitable consequence is a collapse into civil war, and without outside intervention, the final result could well be the total collapse of infrastructure and society.

This is a lesson to all societies that do not have the resources to support themselves. And even those that do.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Waste and more waste

Our IT consultants (locally produced), sent me this:

We have been told it is illegal for us to take cardboard etc to the local tip for recycling (at our expense) as it is trade waste.

Thinking that we would like to continue being environmentally friendly, I rang Suffolk coastal and asked if we could have a trade waste bin for rubbish and another one for cardboard recycling. They say that we they won't do this and we will have to put our cardboard in with our general rubbish

You would have thought rather than wasting time on putting hundreds of bins on the street they would concentrate on businesses that generate far more recyclable rubbish!

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Jenga Theory and Biodiversity

A couple of years ago I developed my concepts of ecological collapse, and drafted an explanation based on jenga. The has lain in my computer files, until cleaning up the backlog of filing I decided to put it in my blog, to see if anyone had any comments.

Biodiversity and the Jenga Principle -- a review
by John A Burton

Biodiversity is a term apparently first used in 1985 and Sir Martin Holdgate the former Director of IUCN defined it as the 'Total sum of life's variety on Earth, expressed at the genetic, species and ecosystem level' . In fact the term has entered into common parlance as a synonym for species diversity, and is in consequence, often misleading. Areas that are important for biodiversity are indeed often species rich, but an over-emphasis on species-rich, so-called 'biodiversity hotspots' can not only be misleading but, on occasion, detrimental to conservation.

One of the objects of 'hotspots' was to prioritise conservation action, but such prioritisation is a gross simplification, and fraught with problems. First and foremost there is the issue of the reliability of the data it is based on. It is not uncommon for birds to be used as indicator' species. This is because it is claimed that birds are among the best-studied taxa, with relatively few new taxa to be described. This claim is not entirely justified, since recent years have actually seen an upsurge in new taxa being recognised. There is also the question as to whether or not one group of taxa can be used to reflect species richness in others. BirdLife published such comparisons but the results were very disappointing, and showed very little convergence between the distribution of mammalian, reptilian and amphibian narrow endemics with birds or with each other.

A glance at any of the maps of the so-called biodiversity hotspots shows that there is a huge concentration in the tropical regions, but hardly any of these regions have been studied anything like as well as Europe or North America, where new species still continue to be described every year. Other concentrations occur where there is large altitudinal variation in a relative small area, such as the Eastern Mediterranean. Whereas areas such as Patagonia, the Putsa, Gobi Desert are ignored despite having many interesting and unique species, including endemics. I believe that concentrating on 'biodiversity hot spots' is extremely dangerous for conservation, because it allows politicians and would be developers to set aside very small areas (which are species rich) at the expense of very large areas (which may be species poor). All my experience in nature conservation points to the fact that size matters. Fragment large, seemingly uniform habitats, and species will become extinct. A fact that has been demonstrated experimentally, as well as being observed on islands.

And this is where Jenga comes in. Most readers will know that Jenga is a simple game of manual dexterity. A tower of wood blocks is created, and then the contestants take it in turns to remove blocks without causing the tower to collapse, but leaving the top layer intact. If a large tower is created, clearly under normal circumstances, more pieces can be removed before it collapses, than from a small tower. If the blocks are used to represent species within an ecosystem, the analogy works pretty well. A simple ecosystem, (pampas) is formed from large blocks (species) but relatively few of them, to create the entire tower (biomass). As a tower it is relatively stable, but as soon as one or two blocks are removed near the base, the slightest jolt will lead it to collapse (other species become extinct). A complex ecosystem (rainforest) is not even a single tower, but a complex series of towers, more like a pyramid, comprising hundreds of blocks. Lots of blocks can be removed before serious damage occurs to the structure, even from near the base.

These are the extremes, and I am sure the analogy can be developed further -- it would also make an interesting and marketable game. But it is in the less clearly defined habitats -- those of the temperate regions, the concept is most likely to be useful.

What we should be looking at are habitats that are likely to cease to operate as ecosystems (Jenga towers) and concentrate on conserving those. Using this approach, I believe it is possible to prioritise conservation action. Madagascar, which is clearly comprised of a tower of unique blocks, has already lost most of its base layers, and so compared with the Amazon or Congo, is much nearer to collapse.

And applying the concept to Europe it is apparent that the whole region is in serious danger. In the past 50 years so much of what was at least partially able to support an ecosystem (farmland) has undergone 'desertification', that it is unlikely that the rest of the ecosystems can survive. The disappearance of birds such as the house sparrow, may even be a symptom of an imminent total collapse.

Previous experience has led me to always question the basis of setting priorities. In 1988 I was involved with the creation of the Programme for Belize, a conservation initiative to acquire land in Central America. Several international conservation bodies were approached for support, but the World Wildlife Fund in the UK declined to put its name to the project at the time, because it was not a 'priority' area. 15 years on, with the benefit of hindsight, we can now state that that area is part of the largest remaining continuous tract of forest in the whole of northern Central America. It is one of the few forests capable of sustaining viable populations of species such as Jaguar and Puma, as well as providing habitat for a wide range of other species. The problem with most of the prioritisation systems that have been used recently, is that they have usually been developed by biologists and scientists, and priorities do not only involve science -- even though scientists might argue they take other factors into account. Counting numbers of species, and degrees of rarity is only part of the equation, and in some cases a relatively unimportant part. Other factors that need to be taken into account include the following:

Economic considerations: What is the cost of buying or protecting the land?
Can it generate income? Can it be self sustaining? What subsidies are needed?

Political considerations: Is there a local will to conserve it? What happens if outsiders become involved?. NIMBYism and the reverse.

And there are many, many other considerations that need to be taken into account.

Spatial considerations: How big is the area? Can it be protected? How near is it to other protected areas? How does it relate to the economic geography of the surrounding country?

The conclusion many conservationists would reach after considering all the above, as well as the huge range of factors normally considered when evaluating endangered species, is that each case needs to be treated on its own merits, and that the world is in such a state of crisis that ALL remaining natural habitats are under threat of some sort and need protection and conservation.

My personal conclusion is that the only way of implementing a realistic prioritisation is opportunistically. Too many of the world's conservation bodies are sitting on piles of cash and/or carrying out yet more research. There are too many so-called conservationists sitting at desks and in labs, writing about it, researching it, but not actually doing anything. Truly a case of fiddling when Rome is nearly burned to the ground. It would be interesting to have some PhD students carry out research into the economics of conservation research, to look at what has been spent on endangered species research over the past 40 years, and compare that with other uses of the money, such as land acquisition. How many millions of dollars have been spent on researching elephants, rhinos tigers and gorillas? How many reserves could have been bought and protected with that money?

Sunday, 15 July 2007

Saving Planet Earth & the BBC Wildlife Fund

Saving Planet Earth & the BBC Wildlife Fund

I was very honoured to asked to be a Trustee of the BBC Wildlife Fund, which is the recipient of the funds raised by the Saving Planet Earth season on BBC TV over the past two weeks. As I write it has raised over £1,200,000. Which I suppose puts into perspective most people's views on the (un)importance of Saving Planet Earth. It's remarkably little, compared with Comic Relief. But we always knew that most people put the short term as much more important than the long term. And it is probable that the majority of the inhabitants of Britain, still think that climate change, the disappearance of rainforests and loss of biodiversty are all issues that won't affect them personally. How wrong they will probably prove to be.

Over the past few weeks there has been a lot written about ways of saving the planet -- magazines including BBC Wildlife, Radio Times and the Independent on Saturday -- have all proffered their advice. But not one of them have mentioned reducing family size. Switching off a few lightbulbs, recycling a newspaper or two, and cycling to work, all have negligible effects compared with not having any children. It may be politically incorrect to even mention the subject (certainly it seemed to be under the reproductively prolific Blair leadership), but it's an incontrovertible fact that it is the single most effective way of combating global climate change, preserving wildlife habitats, and preserving biodiversity. The burgeoning human populations in all parts of the world are unsustainable, and until politicians (and aid agencies) face up to that fact, the world is in dire straits.

But back to Saving Planet Earth. The season culminated in a concert in Kew Gardens, which was broadcast throughout Friday evening with various celeb's in attendance. Certainly not my idea of entertainment -- but it is argued it's a way of attracting an entirely new audience, and making them aware of the problems facing the planet. Only time will tell if this was worthwhile. I personally have a fairly low opinion of the average Sun reader (one of the areas where Saving Planet Earth was promoted), and would argue in favour of sticking to the normal target audience of Grauniad/Times/Indie readership. The argument against being that we would be preaching to the converted. But then aren't the converted are more likely to reach deeper into their pockets? Aren't they more likely to be policy makers? The readers of the Sun may have disposable income, but are they likely to respond? I'd put my money on the Opera-going, Royal Academy members, and Courtauld visiting public any day. But I make absolutely no claims to be a pundit on any of these issues -- which is why I would be interested to hear alternative views. How important is mass opinion? If the Iraqui war is anything to go by, not much. And that is probably a related issue......

But back to Saving Planet Earth. I was very encouraged by the fact that Sir David Attenborough did bring the human population issue into the picture, right at the begining in the very first broadcast of the season. Let's hope that moves it up the agenda.

Friday, 6 July 2007

BBC Saving Planet Earth; Ramblings on the Ethiopian wolf

Last Monday's film of Graham Norton in the Ethiopian Highlands looked at the plight of the Ethiopian Wolf (aka: Simien Fox, Simien Wolf, Ethiopian Fox). Apart from the fact that Norton made a first rate, and serious presenter, it was a good illustration of the the real problems facing wildlife. HUMANS. The erosion of the wolf's habitat by the rapidly increasing human population, gradually creeping into the more remote and inaccessible habitats, such as that occupied by the wolf.

And with the humans come their domestic animals which carry rabies, distemper and other canine diseases fatal to the wild wolves. The solution: a massive vaccination campaign. Expensive, but effective. But meanwhile the human population continues to grow.

Interestingly, the one solution not mentioned was captive breeding -- which in the case of the wolf is an obvious safeguard. Canids are all relatively easy to maintain in captivity, and there is no reason why the Ethiopian wolf should be an exception -- surely it would make sense to have a small self sustaining population? However, there is clearly a conflict of interest in operation since the Ethiopian Wolf project featured in the BBC film is funded largely by the Born Free Foundation. This foundation also funds Zoo Check, and according to their website "The Born Free Foundation believes that wild animals should not be kept in captivity".

This is clearly a simplistic approach, and while I personally agree that whenever possible it is best to maintain endangered species in the wild, sometimes captive breeding is an essential part of conservation. Furthermore there is little question in my mind that zoos can and often do play, a very important role in education. There are plenty of good reasons, in my view, why wild animals should continue to be kept in captivity. I recognise that hand-reared orphan animals, or injured animals have no real role in conservation, but whenever I am brought one, I try and rear it. From Bank Voles to herons, from foxes to rooks I have reared dozens. As did the inspiration behind Born Free, the late Joy Adamson. In most cases it is irresponsible to release those animals back into the wild, for a variety of reasons -- as indeed the Adamson's found out to their cost. So surely the best place for these animals is in a well run zoo, where they can educate another generation, who may never get the chance to see animals in the wild?

And as far as the Ethiopian wold is concerned, an ex situ breeding group is surely an essential part of any conservation strategy for the future.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Our new web site

We need feed back.

The new donations pages appears to be giving donors a lot of problems. In our quest to make things simpler, we appear to have made donating more complex.

So feedback please. Part of the problem appears to involve the need to register -- but this is a process common to most shopping sites. But if anyone dwelling in cyberspace has ideas of how we could simplify our donation process, please let us know. And conversely, if anyone likes the new donation pages, let us know as well.

We always try to be responsive, and listen to our supporters needs. But to do this we need feedback. So over to you, in the big blue yonder.

IMF and Africa

The WLT is often asked why we don't have any projects in Africa. And the simple answer is that we have yet to identify an NGO we feel could carry out a land acquisition, and manage it sustainably into the future. But we are looking, have identified some potential partners, and will probably announce a project soon.

Millions of conservation dollars, pounds and Euros have been spent in Africa, and the conditions for wildlife have continued to deteriorate. Most of this funding has been completely wasted, despite the fact that hundreds, if not thousands of researchers from the developed world have got their masters' degrees and PhDs researching the demise of the wildlife. The IMF recently pointed out that misapplied aid can be disastrous. The G8 group of nations have called for an increase of £13 billion of aid to Africa, but the IMF has pointed out this could have an adverse effect if it is not spent thoughtfully. Aid agencies continue to raise millions in Britain to 'wipe out poverty' in Africa, without having a clue what the environmental impacts are. If you don't believe me, ask any of the big agencies for copies of their EIAs (Environmental Impact Assessments) for a range of projects. Or try asking them what their policies on human population are. This is a fine example:

Dear Mr Burton,

Thank you for your e-mail. Christian Aid does not have a specific policy on population. Our mission is to help people in developing countries improve their lives. We do this by exposing and tackling the root cause of poverty and injustice worldwide. We support and fund projects in developing countries that enable communities build sustainable economies.

Thank you for your interest in the work of Christian Aid.

But hang on, surely the root cause of poverty is a rapidly expanding, unchecked human population, dependent on limited resources?

Comments on a post card or by email please.......

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Cool Earth -- Frank Field's new idea

The Internet is now littered with articles about Frank Field's brilliant new idea for saving the rainforests. An idea that the World Land Trust has actually been implementing for over 17 years. There is one major difference. We are working entirely by supporting local NGOs, and have a lot of carefully established experience. Unfortunately the massive publicity generated by the Cool Earth and Frank Field has led to a backlash of criticism, claiming that it is a form of green imperialism; I hope and doubt this is true, but only time will tell how effective the organisation is. And this is an issue which we at the WLT have been very aware of, and over the years have made sure that it is a criticism that cannot be levelled at our activities. But our main concern is that bad publicity can often rub off on others.

Over 10 years ago criticisms of Sting's Rainforest Foundation led to a massive decline in donations to our work, despite the fact that our approach was radically different. Criticisms of Tomkins and other multi-millionaire businessmen buying up wilderness have a knock on effect on our work. Fortunately, the World Land Trust is now well enough known to survive most of these problems, but land purchase is always going to be a sensitive issue. It is a vital tool in the bid to save biodiversity, provided it is done with the support of local people at all levels, from the communities to the governments concerned. Finally a major issue is that publicity-seeking high profile projects can often have very negative effects by inflating land prices. This is bad for conservation, and bad for local people. This is an issue we have to grapple with constantly